August 20, 2015:
The U.S. government is backing a new round of efforts to obtain more “diversity” (minority personnel) in SOCOM (Special Operations Command). This time around the rationale is that since SOCOM operates all over the world and Americans come from all over the world a more “diverse” SOCOM force would make it easier to blend in when overseas. This ignores the fundamental fact that connecting overseas isn’t about appearances but rather knowledge of the local culture and language. Many who migrate to America and then return to the old country decades quickly discover that they can immediately be spotted as “Americans” because the migrants now speak their native language with an “American” accent and, more importantly, move like an American. This can be upsetting to the returning migrants but it also demonstrates a very basic manifestation of culture. Changing those very noticeable mannerisms is extremely difficult. American Special Forces and espionage agencies worldwide have found that it is very difficult and usually just settle for people who can effectively learn another culture and language.
Efforts to impose quotas in the American military are old news as there was a similar effort to “reform” SOCOM recruiting two decades ago. The problem then, and now, is that not there are not a lot of minority candidates for special operations force or even for the infantry or marines, from which many SOCOM recruits come. Before September 11, 2001 SOCOM was having problems getting enough qualified candidates in general. Throughout the 1990s the U.S. Navy SEALs had to train 900 new recruits a year to maintain strength. But for the eight years before 2001 the SEALs were unable to find even 800 candidates a year. The U.S. Army was pressured to solve the problem for its Special Forces because these troops are perfect for peacekeeping and training well behaved troops for unsettled nations. But Special Forces recruiting goals were met by lowering standards and this became a sore point among special forces troops.
In the late 1990s people in Congress and the media noted that minorities were underrepresented in special operations units. Minority representation in these units averaged about half what it "should" be given the proportion of that minority in the armed forces as a whole. Worst was the Navy SEALs, where only two percent are black. Naturally, a think tank was commissioned to do a study on why this was so. The results were interesting. A big problem was swimming. All operators (not just SEALs) are expected to be prepared to deal with many water obstacles (oceans, rivers, swamps) and thus must have good swimming skills. Take a look at the Olympic swimmers and you can see that water is something whites have a greater affinity for. Learning how to swim is not considered as important for most minority kids. It’s a cultural thing that changes slowly but is still a factor. In many parts of the world, like Africa or rural Latin America, the rivers are full of dangerous creatures and learning to swim makes it easier for these critters to eat you. In Africa this sensible taboo even persisted with some peoples who ultimately ended up on the ocean coast and took up fishing. People from temperate climates can only enter the water part of the year and there are fewer dangerous diseases and creatures in the rivers. So swimming became, and remains, popular for exercise, entertainment and athletic competition.
Then there is the career potential angle. After a tour with special operations, minorities see reduced employment opportunities as civilians. While this is also true for whites, since the volunteer army was introduced in the 1970s, combat units have been disproportionately full of white kids looking for a few thrills before going off to college (or not, no one knows why this is so). Black and Latino kids prefer military jobs where they can get skills useable in civilian occupations. The armed forces is not complaining. They get high quality guys to fill the infantry ranks for a few years. No problem. The minority kids run computers and commo gear. Makes for great photo ops and good PR and it all works. But occasionally someone decides it is a bad thing that must be fixed.
Then there is the family angle. Minority troops are more likely to be married and also (especially among Latinos) put more emphasis on close family relationships. SOCOM operators travel a lot, and everyone knows it. The amount of travel time is a large disincentive. Minority recruits also have more problems with navigation (making your way across unfamiliar terrain.) No one knows why. However, navigation is an essential skill for special operations. Minorities also have a harder time getting good scores on the written test. A lot of this is cultural, as even black educators now openly admit to a long known phenomenon; the black youth culture has long been violently "anti-nerd." Study and doing well was seen as "acting white," and discouraged. Once the kids were old enough realize that all "keeping it real" was nonsense, they had already lost many years of good schooling.
The low percentage of black and Latino kids in the special operations units led to another problem; many potential volunteers thought that these outfits full of tough white guys had to be a hotbed of racism and bigotry. This was untrue, as minority operators tell those who bother to ask. But the bad rep is hard to shake and makes it harder to attract minority candidates.
There has been some right wing and racist stuff in regular infantry units. This was largely the result of lower standards for officers and NCOs. The 90s were not a good time for the military to attract the best and the brightest and the infantry were hurt pretty bad in the leadership department. This was made worse by the need to crack down real hard on harassment (real or imagined) of homosexual and female soldiers. Leaders had a lot of bad habits to keep an eye on.
The elite units are the first ones to be used in an emergency. Some of these operators are ready to get on an airplane and fly to a distant trouble spot on a few hours’ notice. It's telling that there was no public outcry about the recruiting problems until it was framed in racial terms. Everyone insists that there will be no quotas or lowering of standards. If that happened, and word got out, it would be even more difficult to recruit competent operators. But, then, stranger things have happened in the past.